$6,500 dollars. That is how much Salvadoran laborers each pay to be transported in covert trucks to be an illegal immigrant in the United States. $4500 to $5000 for Guatemalans. And $2000 to $2500 for Mexicans. The sum is inequivocally high, especially to end up working as a gardener or farm hand. At the moment more than a third of Salvadorans are found outside of the country, the hardest working Central Americans sending remesas (remittances) from abroad to rebuild families that suffer from repercussions of a savage bloodbath.

—-

I felt so much heartbreak today. A dreadful sense of lamenting and empathy, and I am at a loss for words from the sorrow.

It didn’t occur to me what I knew about El Salvador, until a series of occurrences happened me. Salvadorans (even in the chaotic capital) were unanimously cordial, helpful, and respectful, contrasting with their ugly past and the innumerous semi-automatics and AK-47s carried in hands. Evidence of war-related violence pass me by in the streets or sit next to me on the bus: fine human beings saying “good morning” and “how are you” who had lost an arm, or a leg, or had gory burn scars across their bodies, or a machete cuts over their skull, the brutally blinded… stories of relatives who had died, the consequence of a government and army that crushed its own people and massacred entire towns. But they don’t even feel pity for themselves, they keep working. Salvadorans are so resilient! And even though people are vague about what happened, they are surprised (and so am I) when I fill in the details.

You mean the football wars?” I added when a young Salvadoran waiter was recounting the conflict between this place and Honduras, and its uncensored brutality.

And somehow out of the recesses of my memory from some long-forgotten history class sitting in a lecture hall, ( in a detail that I am surprised to recall,) I blurt out El Mozote in conversation. El Mozote! El Mozote was in El Salvador! The tranquil little town nearby FMLN headquarters where the military came in and massacred everyone indiscriminately, senseless killing, total annihilation of a town. In fact, didn’t I read about survivor accounts of those who came home only to find their mother, father, and siblings all cut up and…riddled with bullets. El Mozote was in El Salvador… just over there.

So I took the bus to Morozán, and the people are unreasonably nice and accomodating, even while I am hating my own government. The guide, frankly describing what happened to her family and the US involvement in supplying arms and training soldiers to be unmoved by slaughtering innocent people. I felt so sick, so harrowed, so disturbed, but mostly so empty and sad and grateful for the anguish. I even wished that Salvadorans were more bitter about the past, more angry, they had every reason to despise Americans, but instead, they accorded hospitality. I remember my insides felt like trembling, moved and yet unable to comment on it, but afterwards, just devastating grief and sorrow.

And the crisp light of dawn that shone upon the cliffs and lush palm trees was so triumphant that several hundred birds flew overhead. This, too, is El Salvador.

(Excerpt from Inevitable Revolutions, The United States in Central America.)

Turning a country into a cemetery: “I wish the Americans would just leave us alone. If we want to kill each other off, it’s our business. The United States has no right to interfere.” …US trained and equipped army personnel carried out most of the killings…throughout these bloody, bleak years, they tried to resolve the unresolvable: extend US military and economic aid so the army could fight the growing revolution, but threaten to cut off aid if the “rival mafias” did not stop murdering Indians, labor leades, educators, lawyer, and each other…Most North Americans, ignorant of a sense of the past, solved the problem by looking the other way.”

Travel note to self: Enter Guatemala… while there are decent people, immediately I am being ripped off and lied to and a lot of people are flagrantly corrupt and unabashedly not good people. Not so much as a matter of money, but as ethics and principles, I really despise people who feel no remorse for their wrongdoings and will go out of my way to ensure they don’t get my business. As a society, they’ve got mafia and criminals and druglords running the place. Honestly I don’t know how foreigners get by without street smarts and Spanish around here, they must be victims all the time. I’ve already gotten into three arguments and had to circle around finding my way outside the establishment. I am staying in a hostel to meet new people, (the hippy crowd today) and many seem kind of dumb and naive about navigating through Guatemala.

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When you think about it… you know, respiring.

Breathe deeply. Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Pause.

Every breath is precious, worthy. A gift of life.

You don’t really notice it, unless you scuba dive and you’ve got that mask as your only source of breatheable oxygen and you sound like a respiratory machine. Darth Vadar.

Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Pause. An involuntary but life-giving cycle. How many of these do I have left? What shall I do with them?

My lungs fill up with sweet fresh air, breathing Central America in, all its aromas and pungent stench. Exhaling, sometimes as pants, other times as sneezes, or maybe even burps. But mostly unnoticeable passges of air exchange, and yet these repetitions, like everything about me, is finite. As mundane as anything, breathing too shall pass away. One day it will be no more. So what shall I do with the remaining ones?

I stare at the dirt.

Likely the sort of dirt that has buried countless people here in Central America. The sort of earth that has been sprinkled on those who have passed before me, from peasants to oligarchy, from blacks to indigenous to mestizo, from the mighty to the cowardly, plantation owners and slaves alike. This bleak dirt suffocates, under which there is no breath for mortals like me, and only place for worms and crawling creatures.

—-

So, first thing’s first. With the remainder gifts of heart beats and fresh breaths, treat my body like the temple it is. It is the greatest physical instrument I will ever own. Drink more water, breathe more deeply. Breathe in. Breathe out. Respire. Inspire. That breath is gone forever, so treasure the next one more. And for all those people screwing up their own bodies by smoke or drink, remind them gently.

Second. Avoid doing things because they are socially expected, and keep exploring your curiosities. What compels you? What intrigues? Do not make choices out of fear, but rather, providence and calculated risk even if I am hesitant. Exercise should never be done because everyone else is doing it, or simply for the ends of a waistline. Exercise might (should) be the byproduct of what I like to do anyway: searching for wisdom or inspiration in a jungle hike. Or accomplishing a physical goal like climbing a certain mountain. Swimming in spectacular lakes in places I love. Spending time with family in a pool, something of an active lifestyle. Playing sports with friends. But never because it’s “the thing to do.” Note to self: never ever buy a treadmill, never ever weigh myself on a scale. I don’t, and hope I won’t.

Third. Spend less time on noise, more time on substance. Do not read newspapers in Latin America, which is all about horrific murders and homicides and assassinations anyway. If I paid much attention to newspapers, I would have been too scared to go to South Central L.A., which then would never have brought me to El Salvador. So many beautiful places in the world would have been lost to me. Focus on what can be accomplished under the circumstances.

And spend as little time as humanly possible with stupidity. When detected, avoid contact and exit as quickly as I am capable. If dull minds are encountered, and they are quite often, escape or buffer with excuses. Because ignorance wastes these precious breaths on frustration, sighing, anger and disappointment. Idiocy, by the way, is different from education. It seems that in certain places, knuckleheads are everywhere, and some very academically capable folks don’t have the simplest common sense. Note to self: Do not waste limited remaining breaths on these time and energy sinks. Do not reason with them, simply remove yourself from the vicinity and do other things.

Fourth. Continue to improve Spanish, Chinese and Portuguese… exploring the places that use them and picking up regional accents and differences as part of the learning. This skill is proving ever-more useful, and rare

Breathe in. Breathe out. Gone. What am I going to do today?

Update: I’m still not used to everyday Salvadoreños carrying automatic rifles and revolvers and rounds of ammunition around their waist. It feels like a case for alarm, if it weren’t for the gallant chivalry. I guess I feel safe. But anyway, here is a back post of a journal I wrote on the bus:

Murals from Leon, Nicaragua

6:54am. September in Nicaragua. Magnificent rainbow after the rain today, which shot from the forest canopy to an incredible arch traversing the sky. Sunrise glorious over the verdant landscape of tamarind and mimosa trees. Every minute of the madrugada rich shades of lemongrass and winter fern green over huts and hammocks, palm trees and lazy white cattle swatting flies with their tails. Sometimes there are swamps, othertimes just lush savannah. Squat shurbbery intercept endless fertile grasses which sprout as softly as terraces of rice paddies.

At this hour in the morning, a shrouded periwinkle volcano sleeps under the most gentle wispy clouds, back-illuminated by brilliance, struck by gold sunshine, clean triumphant rays of morning light. This glow drenched the entire landscape in glorious hues, cloud forests dissipated in fog, as if to announce a divine blessing. And it’s not hard to imagine that this might have been endowed as the land of procreation, land of abundance, land of seed and of sprout.

Silence would have been the most profound accompaniment, but instead, there is the caw of birds, the start of motors, the crack of old cars chugging down the highway. At the moment, I can only be humbled, and soak it all in. All the beauty, a botanist’s paradise and a naturalists’ dream, confronted with tragedy and poverty and lack.

The rain drips from blades of grass from this morning’s thunderstorm.”

—-

Spanish Words of the Day:buitres” vultures | “garzas” herons | “aguacero” downpour | “garúa” drizzle

They’ve said awful things about it, I’ve always wanted to come here. Not sure if it’s from meeting all the illegal immigrants in Los Angeles, or the pupusas these Salvadorean mothers once prepared for me over five years ago…or…the brutal headlines of the Salvatrucha maras. The gangs are notorious in Los Angeles, extensively tattooed from face to arms, known for their gruesome and grisly murders. And then, going to South America so many times, I saw this wet country from the airport, a stopover, one time when a team of Taiwanese water engineers who chat with me. They didn’t speak Spanish or English, and managed to enjoy their time in El Salvador. So I’ve always wanted to find out for myself, what is El Salvador. Alone.

Suchitoto, the church outside. The name means “Place of Birds and Flowers”

Entering the country from the Panamerican Highway through Honduras there’s nothing particularly striking about the tropical leafy landscape. Cool breezes. Squat houses, very poor houses, a lot of rusting corrugated metal roofs and houses made of cement and sometimes wire fencing. Muddy. Dirt floors. Everyone is barefoot, and carrying around guns: security, officers, even normal people walking around with a semi-automatic on their waist. Without the company of my friends, I am reliant on the company of Salvadoreans, who are noticeably very hardworking, diligent and…honest and kind! I’ve been warned by privileged Salvadoreans never (ever!) to take the public bus. So, I took the public bus. Just to see.

I take very calculated risks. I choose my seat on the bus carefully, and I’m aware that my physique compels machismo chivalry that keeps me safe for the most part. Most people like to hear me speaking Spanish to them, older women instantly protect me like a mother. You know what I notice? As a percentage of the population, more people are amputated and with deep scar tissue from machete cuts than I have noticed in any other Central American country. BY FAR. I mean, parapeligiac strong men with both legs ending at the thigh. Legs that stopped at the ankle, beat up. Missing arms. Grotesque. The civil war which had displaced some three million abroad was obviously unspeakably brutal, but then, the people: remarkably kind and getting on with their lives, even courteous and sweet to me. Very fair, too, I haven’t once felt cheated, harassed or misled.

Upon arrival, El Salvador is a country that makes me grieve. Makes me angry, makes me responsible, and it’s the many settlements of dwellings made of corroding metal and cement blocks. Trash everywhere, and lacking potable water supply and constant electricity. The first impression is that of sorrow mixed with a twinge of admiration. People packed standing in the back of trucks, while rain pours on them. Like other parts of Central America, people suffer from obesity and poor diets.

…And of course, as life turns out, the hotel name that was recommended and I booked reservations for, happens to be a gorgeous Spanish hamlet overlooking forested cliffs and the great Suchitlan lake. There are fluorescent butterflies that are several inches across, and vibrant beetles. I’ve got the spacious upstairs to myself, three rooms with antique furnishings, comforters, bathtub, hot water, elegant ceiling fans in every room, a veranda hammock to overlook the lake, sitting desk to write my private letters. And a fully-equipt Spanish-tile kitchen with electric stove, oven, microwave, and mahogany dining table. I don’t even have to worry about charging my iPod, laundry is taken care of.

I’ve paid $40 for the night. Suchitoto is a world apart from real El Salvador, idyllic stone roads, mango trees, and the occassional drunkard passed out but generally the old colonial flavor.  In this sanctuary I cannot help feeling irremediably guilty for my privilege, so unfairly class conscious. And the only consolation is that at least the money is going into Salvadorean hands, and at least I made it by myself to get to know El Salvador. But even so, it feels flagrant and prolifigate—some 2% own some vast 90% of the country’s riches, and I cannot erase the images of the poor’s living standards: Snarling traffic, gucky markets, thirty-odd vendors climbing on our bus to sell apples or tortillas or candy, crowded streets and putrid smells that remind me of urban recesses of China.
El Salvador is relatively well-paid, people earn far more per week than neighboring Guatemala, Honduras or Nicaragua. But what amount people earn in dollars, is not reflected in their standard of living. It will take time to understand, but people are more industrious, more resilient, yet poorer. (Comparatively, I now find that the impoverished population in Chiapas, Mexico rather whiny, complainy, and lazy for having relatively many natural resources and riches. Chiapanecos on average seem to not to appreciate what they have.)

San Salvador inspires me. It packs heat. Salvadoreans deserve better, especially in housing and infrastructure. If I become an interpreter, and leverage China’s massive industry with Latin America, I will want to fix this.

Spent two days swimming in a turquoise volcanic crater in Laguna de Apoyo, here are my writings from bed:

Mirador. Santa Catarina, Nicaragua. Crawled up at 5:30am and stumbled up without breakfast, two and a half hours into jungle mud, rocks and tropical fauna on a steaming hot Central American morning. Laura and I, navigating rocks and slippery edges, so muddy was the trail that Laura completely took off her shoes and went barefoot in mud. It’s hot, sweaty, with fleshy thick leaves dripping warm rain dew. We heard some birds, some wildlife but mostly our own heaving exhaling in the early morning. The pathway was steep and savage, our energy quickly depleting as we continued forward. When we got the very top, drenched in sweat, the greatest reward wasn’t a view of the crater lake nor the volcanoes—it was the autumn wind that rushed past, like a wind tunnel between trees.”

—-

Crater’s Edge. Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua. The six kilometers of fresh water lay before us sprawled in its cobalt beauty. Swimming in it with friends, the cool water feels so nice, kicking past the thermal vents and the lakebed dropping ten meters and deeper. There are calm, orange and grey colored fish just below the surface, and gathering around the dock. Sometimes, with only us in the whole big crater lake, the sulfured water was so unstirred that the upper torso would be warm and it would be cold waist down. Swimming in the water, I am so comfortable with my body. I notice it is so able, so healthy, so glowing with the vigor of youth. A magnificent mechanism, totally utilitarian, a golden tone of a slight tan, no wrinkles except those on my toes from being in the water a while. I swim to the edge of another lodge, submerge myself to touch the rocky limestone floor, and exhale into bubbles coming up. I breathe deeply, feeling the gradation of cool temperatures glide against my skin. Backstroke, staring at the thundering grey clouds, embracing the stream of water between my kicking legs. It starts to rain warmly and pour over the lake—all the drops look unreal–and I am aware I am in a special moment in life. Awake, energetic, and so alive. Oh let me not take this for granted. Let me savor this. Such vibrant blue and clear waters, such pristine swet water. Hair dripping down my back. I submerge again, sink my head under the peaceful surface, to hear the reverberating echos under the prismatic surface of the placid lake, fishes I have never seen before. This is heaven on earth. I hope my weekends always stay as idyllic, and my heart remains childlike for a long time.”

—-

PS: No recent “Spanish Words of the Day” as I am trying to learn the local accent, and all these new words for normal everyday things, as well as slang in Central America.

This is an excerpt from a book that I particularly admire:

Zengetsu, a Chinese master of the T’ang Dynasty wrote the following for his pupils:

Living in the world yet not forming attachments to the dust of the world is the way of the true Zen student. When witnessing the good action of another, encourage yourself to follow his example. Hearing the mistaken action of another, advise yourself not to emulate it.

Even though alone in a dark room,be as if you were facing a noble guest. Express your feelings, but become no more expressive than your true nature. Poverty is your treasure, never exchange it for an easy life.

A person may appear a fool and yet not be one. He may only be guarding his wisdom carefully.

Virtues are the fruit of self-discipline and do not drop from heaven of themselves as does rain or snow. Modesty is the foundation of all virtues. Let your neighbors discover you before you make yourself known to them.

A noble heart never forces itself forward. Its words are as rare gems, seldom displayed and of great value.

To a sincere student, every day is a fortunate day. Time passes but he never lags behind. Neither glory or shame can move him.

Censure yourself, never another. Do not discuss right or wrong. Some things, though right, were considered wrong for generations. Since the value of righteousness may be recognized after centuries, there is no need to crave immediate appreciation. Live with cause and leave results to the great law of the universe. Pass each day in peaceful contemplation.

In a country historically known for its Sandinista campaign and literacy education for the poor, today’s nicaragüenses are retrograding:

Teenage pregnancy is rampant and cohabitation without marraige is common. And today, a young 22-year-old started chatting me up and wanting to share her story of the city, to the ends of asking me to buy her newborn some formula powder. But she didn’t want just anything for her baby, she wanted to take me to the supermarket, and not just any market, the most upscale market in town. Pretty soon, I discovered she expected me to buy her Gerber’s formula and baby food, she wouldn’t accept any other brand. I started telling her how formula wasn’t actually a good replacement for breast milk, that I would buy nutritious food instead. She took me to the organic refridgerated section, insisting there wasn’t normal fruit stands in the town (there are.) Uncomfortableness started creeping in when she asked me to read her the labels in Spanish and explain them to her… it turned out that, like many young Nicaraguans, she was illiterate. And she couldn’t have normal fruit because she didn’t have a blender. Then she wanted cookies, of which I told her that while I was happy to help out with a few things for friends and acquiantances, that I shouldn’t be made to feel like a sponsor patron. After she went away empty-handed I felt bad for the rest of the day, thinking about how the some of the poor feel so entitled with the foreigners they see.

Personal Note: Hehehe clever: Borracho Obama. John McCaña. Only in Nicaragua have I been so impressed by people’s wry wit and a country’s exquisite tropical beauty.